It takes a decent amount of time and effort to design a good user-interface. One of the problems faced when making a user-interface is that it can take an enormous increase in effort to make an ordinary interface into an extraordinary one. You may have come across a user interface (be it for a web-site, or an application) and been absolutely flummoxed by its operation. Unfortunately, that does not mean that a great deal of time and effort were not spent trying to simplify it. (Of course it may mean that no time and effort were spent trying to get it right!)
There is an extra pressure on designers of external web-sites. Get it too far wrong and your customers go off to your competitor’s web-site. In my experience, application developers can get away with worse user-interfaces. If the program has the features people want, people will make the effort to learn how to use the application. This should not be seen as an excuse not to care about the user-interface. There is a saying that if your customers are not aware a feature exists, then it doesn’t. Unfortunately, most user interfaces end up obscuring some functionality. In a feature-rich application it becomes increasingly difficult not to do so.
Every time I hear a person talk about “learning” software, I feel that somehow the software has failed. I would like software to be so intuitive that using it is “natural” – rather than a learned action. It is probably an unrealistic expectation that all software will be like this, but that does not stop it being a worthy goal to work towards.
When I talk to non-technical people about using software, the thing that becomes apparent is that they all expect to have to learn how to use it. No-one expects to sit down in front of a new word-processor and just use it to do their job. One disheartening example came with the release of Microsoft Office 2007. For me, the ribbon was a huge step in usability enhancements over the traditional tool-bar and menus approach. The one resounding criticism I hear with Office 2007 was from existing Office 2003 (and prior) users:
“I used to know where everything was and then they went and changed it all. Now I have to re-learn where things are”
Microsoft puts a great deal of time and effort into usability. Hopefully, this means the learning curve for Office 2007 was not as severe as with previous versions. The ribbon was designed to be “a better way”: Task oriented user-interface is meant to be superior to functional oriented user-interface. People have been “brought up” thinking along the lines of functional software rather than thinking the computer will aid them in completing their task. This mind-set will change over time and wide spread adoption of task-oriented user interfaces.
If you ever have to write a user-interface remember this:
- You either spend your time getting it right, or ask the users to spend their time figuring it out.
- The world does not need more software that is difficult to use.